Day 159: Notes from a White Suburban Family on Vacation, Part 2
by Tom Noonan
Washington Square is flooded with sunbathers. A dog navigates the maze of bodies, tracking down a ball or maybe a small animal. Something is making him run. In the background there’s a hill with a tower standing at the top, holding its posture, a soldier among the trees. My mom’s reading about the irony of the park’s Benjamin Franklin statue from a tour book when I hear someone playing a Frank Ocean song across the baking grass. “We All Try”. It’s the kind of music people might make love to then discuss after.
Earlier we left our car in a discount parking lot that had fortune cookie quotes stenciled at the base of each space. Ours, for some reason, read, “You already found your true love. Stop looking.”
John: What are you doing?
Dad: I’m letting the guy go.
John: Why? He’s telling you to go. Go!
Dad: Sometimes you have to be courteous.
John: And sometimes you have to go, like when the guy tells you to go, you go.
Down on Fisherman’s Warf, we’re stalked by seagulls that move like beggars, beaks open, expectant, possibly hopeful. But there’s a discomforting strangeness in seeing animals act like this, giving in to their weakest instincts. You begin to understand how little our particular breed fits on earth, recognize how much we’ve mistaken ourselves for gods. The birds might beg for food, but they’ll still fly away when someone yells at them.
The other colonizing force on the Wharf are street performers, throwing paint at canvas and rumbling through Bob Dylan’s catalogue the way he probably meant it to be played: in the glorious, conquering racket of a one-man band. My mom is drawn, as she usually is, away from the noise and towards the youth entertainment, which, in this case, is a plump half-clown making balloon animals. By the time I catch up, the balloon artist’s partially-painted face is twisting curiously, taking on a shape usually molded in hostile board rooms. I quickly realize the half-clown is pointing this mask in the direction of a young girl, who is holding out a dollar bill in the same way a promoter might hand out a flyer, thinking to herself that as long as she hands it off to someone else, her job is done.
“Now, I told your parents,” the indecisive circus deserter starts, bending down the few inches it takes her to reach the little girl’s height, “that the modest thing to do is five dollars per balloon.” Her words have that familiar ring of a lecture, not one you’d hear in a classroom, but on a playground, probably after you buried another kid’s head too deep in the sand. The girl turns to her father, who is playing guardian to her tubular pink dog, and isn’t able to come up with a facial expression to represent what just happened. She doesn’t have that type of muscle memory yet, the kind that causes wrinkles. She doesn’t know, can’t know, what just happened. She’s a grape trying to figure out how to be a raisin.
“I can’t live off of one dollar,” the half-clown continues, pulling the young girl’s adolescent blur into a sharp focus with every word. “I’ve tried, but I just can’t.”
Later, when we’re settling in for dinner, I’m still reeling from the interaction we’d stumbled across. The half-clown and the young girl. I realize that this has a lot to do with how mad I am at the clown for what she did, for taking that experience from the girl, for not doing her job, for deciding not to pull a rabbit from a hat but to shove the hat down the rabbit’s throat instead. Sitting at dinner, deciding what to order, I’m still really fucking angry.
And I’m not sure I should be. For one, it’s not my story. I walked up late and only saw the end. Me being mad about this could be like anyone getting mad at George Wilson for killing Gatsby. I should probably figure out the context before I permit myself such a strong reaction.
But even more than that, no one else seems to have been as affected by it. Not even my mom, who is usually a crusader for all things moral, even if it means risking her kid’s enrollment in middle school when she tells the dean of students she has no respect for him, and who kind of just shrugged the whole balloon thing off, actually laughing about it a little. Normally incidents like this one would have her recapping all day, finding new arguments, fresh reasons why everyone involved fucked up, believing, I often imagine, that if she could just picture the best case scenario, then maybe somewhere, at some point, that scene will play out just like she envisioned. I open the menu and force myself to make a quick decision because everyone else is ready to order.
On our walk back to the hotel, we pass a homeless man camped out for the night, a wool blanket, the type the army issues, wrapped so loose around him that it’d be easy to mistake his body for dumpster overflow. Only the top of his head is visible, and specks of gravel stick to his blanket like tiny pieces of armor. Anywhere else they might look like bandages.
But this is San Francisco, and it’s harder to swallow this type of image here, the one of the homeless man. In New York you get it, you can see how it could happen, the ratios are clear, the percentages precise. You see crowds of people walking to their jobs, their families, their grocery store, and you understand that some of them fell down along the way and couldn’t get back up. In a bigger city, a more crowded city, where the numbers make sense, it’s easier to just walk past a homeless person without feeling anything besides a sense of relief that he tripped instead of you.
Tonight it’s not as easy. The streets are pretty much empty, save for our family, a few staggering twentysomethings trying to remember where they live, and the man sleeping on the ground, spooning with the wall of a Wells Fargo. The ratios don’t make sense here, especially with the size of everything around us, all that vertical space left unsettled, the buildings’ dark windows and callous silence. They’ll sleep well tonight.
Walking along the streets in San Francisco, you might stop believing in morality. But that’s nothing compared to when you stop believing in math.